Just another new Academic Year? Think again!
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! For many of us the new Academic Year just started or is about to start. These are busy times: catching up with our academic (and administrative) duties, reconnecting with colleagues and with students. It’s all too easy to fall back into an old pattern and go into the classroom with the same set of assumptions and expectations from previous years. That’s why I would like to call for a pause. A moment to collect our thoughts and acknowledge where we are. Think of what’s important. I believe this exercise is not a luxury; it is extremely necessary right now as it allows us to take stock of the current situation and decide on our next steps. Intentionally and not “by default”. I don’t claim I have all the answers (this is a very personal exercise anyway), but what I want to do is help us ask some of the important questions. I would be happy to get a discussion going, so please share your thoughts and reflections. Have a good week!
Where are we now?
It’s been almost three years since “teaching and learning as we knew it” has been disrupted. For better or for worse. So we can start by acknowledging that we are all in a different place than we were, say, in September 2019.
Students, regardless of the year of study, are less socialised into the “university norms”, or at least into what we used to believe those norms were (i.e. regularly coming to class, interacting with peers and faculty, getting involved in campus life, etc).
Faculty has had to reassess and sometimes drastically change their way of teaching and relating to students. They had to quickly learn how to effectively use new tools. They started to see the value in sharing, collaborating, and asking for help.
Staff has been working relentlessly to support emergency remote teaching and learning and also, in many cases, to inspire faculty and students to embrace and make the most of a variety of media and learning environments. They are worn out, sometimes burned out, and still committed to provide guidance and support as needed.
All of us had to learn how to joggle work with personal life, trauma with work efficiency. We learned how to deal with vulnerability. We opened up our personal space and sometimes managed to create bonds stronger than we ever did on campus. Some of us found a balance that works well for us. Some of us are still struggling. It’s a fact. Denying it won’t take us anywhere. It’s the foundation we have to build on right now.
Who are our students?
So let’s start with our students. We have to be aware of the fact that these are not the “regular” student cohorts we knew before the pandemic, for whom learning in the classroom was the norm. We might have noticed during the last academic year that they are perhaps less inclined to come to class regularly, that they have a more “a la carte” approach to their studies. And it’s very easy to blame them for that.
But we need to stop for a moment and try to imagine who our current students are. Whether they are first year students or later on in their studies, their learning experience in the past years has been extremely different than what we knew pre-pandemic. They studied mostly online, with different degrees of interactivity, without the inherently social aspect of campus life and with different interpretations of an academic schedule. As a consequence, they don’t take “being in class” as the logical - and sometimes the only- vehicle for learning. They don’t immediately recognise the benefits of working with colleagues. They are also not always that fluent in interacting with faculty and staff.
But holding all this against them in a judgemental way will not contribute to a positive learning environment. Instead, we need to make an extra effort and get to know them better, intentionally create opportunities for them to open up, and clearly signal that this is ok to do. Moreover, we need to be transparent with our course design choices and explicit in our communication to them.
Bottom line: getting to know our students has always been important but right now it is crucial. Let’s refrain from taking them for granted and create a space where they are seen and understood.
Recalibrating teaching and learning
One thing the pandemic did is blow up our idea of “normal” in terms of teaching and learning (and many other things, really). But humans are searching for stability and recognisable patterns, so for a while now we’ve been talking about “going back to normal” or the “new normal”. But this notion inherently means that our old, pre-pandemic ways had something desirable about them, something to aim going back to. It also gives us the illusion (because it is just an illusion!) that the campus, the classroom, the office we’ll go back to are the same ones from before the pandemic. And this lulls us into falling back to familiar patterns in terms of teaching and learning.
But how about letting go of the idea of “normal”? How about we take a moment to meaningfully reflect on our experience in the past three years in a try to see how it shaped the way we teach, learn, work, the way we interact with each other and with our environment?
Here are three topics we can start with:
Learning: Where does it happen? How does it happen? When does it happen? How can we facilitate it? What do we do that hinders it? Trying to look at learning from a 360° perspective, opening up a dialogue with everyone involved (students, faculty, staff, employers…) and looking into existing research can be really eye-opening.
Reimagining class time: designing more inclusive and versatile learning spaces, fit for purpose (i.e. learning objectives) and matched by suitable teaching and learning strategies. Breaking down walls (sometimes literally), moving furniture around, mixing the virtual into the physical and the other way around. And taking the students with us on this journey, by clearly and openly communicating with them about how, where and when they learn and how we can support them.
Flexibility and structure: We may be tempted to put “versus” instead of “and” between these two important concepts. But one should not exclude the other, as we need both to create an effective learning environment. Setting up a clear structure, some “ground rules”, in dialogue with students, is a way of showing them we care. Intentionally allowing space for flexibility within this structure takes us a step further and helps us ensure we can adequately respond to unforeseen circumstances without entirely turning the course upside down.
Let’s talk about now!
While reflection and keeping the bigger picture in mind is important, where does this leave us now and what can we realistically do in the short term, as the Academic Year is starting?
The one most important thing: make a real effort to know your students. Talk to them, listen to them, create opportunities for mutual feedback (and show how you act on it). You can find some ideas in the resources below.
Start small: change one thing in your course, try out something new. It does not have to be very substantive, here are some ideas of things you can do in less than ten minutes. This will give you and your students a boost in confidence and you can continue the trend in future courses.
Talk to a colleague: share something about your teaching, ask for or offer advice, exchange syllabi, brainstorm solutions for a common problem together, go and observe each other’s classes. Any of these may only take a short time but the impact in terms of inspiration and motivation can be great. Here are some more ideas.
Choose one book, article, resource on teaching and learning and read/ watch it; again, a relatively small investment that can help us refocus on what’s important right now.
Start a teaching diary: this one may seem like a greater time investment, and something we have a hard time integrating in our busy schedules; but once you try it and find a good strategy for it, it will help you feel more connected to our teaching and ultimately to your students. Get some ideas here.
In terms of faculty development…
What can we, as educational developers, do to support this process of reimagining and recalibrating teaching and learning? First of all, it’s important to recognise the fact that at this point we all find it difficult to find the energy necessary to learn something new. At least not in the formal, structured way we were used to. So, where does that leave us?
We can still meaningful support faculty by:
Creating spaces to meet and reconnect: intentionally design opportunities that bring people together: faculty, students, staff. Right now, as we are relearning our way through the campus, these are more valuable than ever and we need a little help until they start occurring naturally.
Rethinking our offer: taking some time to think about our aims and our target audiences. Sometimes less is more, shorter and more succinct can be more helpful than long and elaborate. It all depends on goals and circumstances. Ideally we will end up developing a portfolio that integrates a variety of learning experiences, with different starting points, levels of depth, means of interaction and taking place in a flexible mix of physical and virtual environments. But building this takes time and, like in the recommendations to faculty above, we need to start with small steps.
My colleague Inken Gast has some great suggestions on how faculty development can contribute to the well-being of academics, based on her research and practice.
All I wanted to say, really, is that yes, we do have a choice of how we move forward. But it may not be the path of least resistance. So we need to be patient with ourselves and with everyone around us, immerse ourselves in the process and not lose sight of the core goal: facilitating and supporting learning.
A Tool to Advance Inclusive Teaching Efforts: The “Who’s in Class?” Form, by Tracie Marcella Addy, Khadijah A. Mitchell & Derek Dube- don’t forget to download the supplemental material;
A student survey by Michelle Pacansky-Brock that you can customise and use in your course;
Introduction to Transparency in Learning and Teaching- a collection of resources that can help us be more transparent with our learning design choices;
Course Design Considerations for Inclusion and Representation- a great guide including practical recommendations for applying research-based best practices for inclusive course design;
Community building activities- a great collection curated by Maha Bali, Mia Zamora and Autumm Caines;
Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity, by Kimberly D. Tanner;
Rebuilding the first year experience, one block at a time, by Trish McCluskey, John Weldon & Andrew Smallridge- valuable resource if you are teaching first year students.